One Fish, Two Fish: Monitoring Marine Protected Areas

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I hesitatingly looked at the weather report the night before. I knew we might be in for it. No rain was forecast but the swell looked bigger than I hoped. So as the sun was rising over Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay, it was some trepidation that I sighed and boarded the fishing vessel Donna Kathleen. Morning coffees were passed out to those who wanted them and we cast off. As the plucky ship made its way beyond the break, I met with captain Tim Maricich, the crew, and the two scientists we’d be profiling; Dirk Rosen from Marine Applied Research and Exploration, the non-profit who builds and pilots the underwater remotely operated vehicles used to survey the sea floor, and Professor James Lindholm, from the Institute of Applied Marine Ecology at California State University Monterey Bay, who is in charge of chronicling and interpreting everything the ROV encounters. Their collective mission was to survey areas of the newly established Marine Protected Areas approximately 2 miles off the North-Central California coast.

Marine Protected Areas, or “MPAs,” have recently been set aside up and down the coast of California. These are essentially restricted no-fishing zones that have been established to allow fish to breed and grow big with the idea that they will be able replenish State waters. This is different from the standard fishery management practices of the past in that it is aimed to protect entire ecosystems all of the time instead of managing one type of fish at certain times of the year.

The science seems to back up the theory. In other parts of the world, marine protected areas have shown success in fish populations growing in both number and size. In one case in Mexico, this type of program has been scientifically proven to be successful in bringing back big fish in greater numbers. No-take zones in a Mexican national marine park that had previously been over fished became what they called “large-fish factories.” According to one report, “after 10 years, the area filled back up with big fish – 1,070 percent more fish.” As Dirk Rosen said on our trip, “We want places here where these BOFFs, Big Old Fat Females, can grow big and breed more.”

The Donna Kathleen neared its first survey spot and the energy picked up as the crew readied the ROV, named “Beagle,” for launch. As the boat came to a stop and tilt-a-whirl pitched in the rolling swell, QUEST Associate Producer Josh Cassidy, Audio Tech Eric Limcaoco and I each turned a shade of sea-green and quietly moved to the gunwales to “feed the fish.” We’d basically be out of commission for the rest of the voyage. Thankfully our iron-gutted cameraman, Blake McHugh was able to go on business as usual so were able to capture all the goings-on as the ROV was manhandled and dropped into the deep blue. In a short time it would begin sending amazing images of life on the sea floor back to the scientists watching on board.

This is an unusual crew, a blend of rough handed fishermen and conservation biologists working together. The object is to get a baseline of what is currently living in the MPAs and surrounding areas. In a couple years, and moving forward, scientists can return and survey the same areas to see how, or if, the MPAs are working.


But this partnership of fishermen and scientists is something worth noting. These are two groups that have often been at odds during the establishment of the MPAs. But for fisherman Tim Maricich, temporarily converting his fishing boat into a research vessel now made sense. “So research-fishing, fishing-research, in our minds it’s the same. We treat the Beagle like we would a piece of fishing gear. It’s like a large crab trap... If the crab trap was maneuverable and had cameras.” The scientists have been able to access the fisherman's decades-long experience in these waters. And Captain Maricich has been able to have direct input on where data is collected and oversee the operation. “It’s very important for the fishing public to see that this kind of research is being done honestly. It’s imperative to build trust, you know?”

This partnership is reflective in another taking place now further North in Ft. Bragg. The Central Groundfish Project is bringing conservationists and fisherman together to develop a new pooled quota system to improve fishery sustainability. The hope is to keep fishermen working while not over fishing. The Nature Conservancy has been working with The Fort Bragg Groundfish Association and the Central Coast Sustainable Groundfish Association to provide scientific data and create a community-focused fishing agreement – called a risk pool – that takes a cooperative approach between local fishery stakeholders to help protect our marine resources.

Nearly every fisherman will tell you the same thing; they want strong vibrant fisheries and a healthy environment. They will tell you they want to pass it on to the next generation and none of them want to contribute to a collapse. While there might be arguments about how to fix certain problems, or even if they need to be fixed, the new partnerships and the trust being established now may lead to better understanding. Some changes seem to be inevitable- whether it is less independence or the loss of a favorite fishing spot- but one thing probably wont ever change – and that’s the view I always have when leaning over the side.